Soane, John (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 53
Soane, John

by Freeman Marius O'Donoghue
1904 Errata appended.
Contains subarticle George Soane (1790–1860).

SOANE, Sir JOHN (1753–1837), architect, and founder of the Soane Museum, was born on 10 Sept. 1753 at Whitchurch, near Reading, the son of a mason (John Soane, who married Frances Hannington 3 Feb. 1747–8). His real name was Swan, which he changed, first to Soan, and later to Soane. After attending a school at Reading he was engaged as an errand boy by George Dance the younger [q. v.], who, observing his artistic talent, took him into his office, and later transferred him to that of Henry Holland (1746?–1806) [q. v.], with whom he remained until 1776. In 1772 he gained the Royal Academy silver medal with a drawing of the elevation of the Banqueting House at Whitehall, and in 1776 the gold medal with a design for a triumphal arch, a remarkable composition which also earned for him the travelling studentship. In March 1777 he went to Italy, where he spent three years, chiefly in Rome, studying the remains of antiquity and making original designs for public buildings. There he made the acquaintance of Thomas Pitt, first baron Camelford [q. v.], Frederick Augustus Hervey, D.D., fourth earl of Bristol [q. v.], and other influential persons, who were of service to him later. In 1778, during his absence abroad, his first publication appeared, being a series of plates of temples, baths, &c., designed in the then prevailing style, and possessing so little merit that he afterwards bought up and destroyed all copies that could be found. Soane returned to England in 1780, and during the next few years erected many country houses, the designs for which he published in a volume in 1788. In 1784 he made a wealthy marriage. In 1788, on the death of Sir Robert Taylor (1714–1788) [q. v.], he was appointed architect to the Bank of England, and this success proved the starting point of his prosperous career. He was required to enlarge and practically rebuild the entire structure of the bank, a task which involved many difficulties due to the form and character of the site; the architectural style which he employed—Roman Corinthian of the variety found in the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli—was a great innovation, and the result, notwithstanding many grave faults in the details, has been generally admired. Upon this work Soane's reputation now chiefly rests, all his other important buildings in the metropolis having since been altered or removed. In 1791 he was appointed clerk of the works at St. James's Palace and the Houses of Parliament; in 1795 architect to the department of woods and forests; in 1807 clerk of the works at Chelsea Hospital; in 1813 superintendent of works to the fraternity of freemasons; and in 1815 one of the three architects attached to the office of works. In 1794 Soane was commissioned to prepare designs for the remodelling of the House of Lords, but the work was eventually entrusted to James Wyatt [q. v.] He afterwards unsuccessfully urged upon parliament proposals for a royal palace in the Green Park and other magnificent public buildings. About 1808 he was employed upon restoration work at Oxford and Cambridge, especially at Brasenose College. In 1812 he erected the galleries at Dulwich College for the reception of Sir Francis Bourgeois's pictures; in 1818 the National Debt Redemption Office in Old Jewry; between 1822 and 1827 the royal gallery and library at the House of Lords, the law courts at Westminster (removed in 1884), and the privy council and board of trade offices in Whitehall (afterwards rebuilt by Sir Charles Barry [q. v.]); and in 1829 the state paper office at Westminster, which was pulled down in 1862 to make way for the new India office. Soane's buildings were generally well planned, but in his later ones the elevations rarely proved satisfactory, being marred by a profusion of ornament often mean and meretricious. He incurred much hostile criticism and ridicule, and a satirical attack upon his ‘Bœotian’ style, published in Knight's ‘Quarterly Magazine,’ 1824, led to an unsuccessful libel action. Soane was elected A.R.A. in 1795, and R.A. in 1802. In 1806 he succeeded George Dance as professor of architecture at the academy, and the courses of lectures which in that capacity he delivered, commencing in 1809, attracted much attention. In 1810 they were temporarily suspended in consequence of a vote of censure passed upon him by the academy for adversely criticising the work of a brother-architect. He became a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1795, of the Royal Society in 1821, and was a member of the academies of Vienna and Parma. He was knighted in 1831. In 1827 he published ‘Designs for Public Improvements in London and Westminster,’ and in 1828 ‘Designs for Public and Private Buildings,’ 56 plates, fol. In 1833 Soane resigned all his appointments and retired from practice, and in 1835 was presented with a set of medals by the architects of England in recognition of his public services.

Soon after his appointment as professor of architecture at the academy Soane began to form, for the benefit of his pupils and other students, collections of antiquities, books, and works of art, and upon these towards the end of his life he expended large sums of money. In 1824 he purchased the celebrated alabaster sarcophagus brought from Egypt by Belzoni; he acquired Hogarth's two series of pictures, ‘The Rake's Progress’ in 1802, and ‘The Election’ (from Garrick's collection) in 1823, Reynolds's ‘Snake in the Grass,’ and a number of good works by the leading painters and sculptors of the day. These, together with many casts and models of the remains of antiquity, gems, rare books, and illuminated manuscripts, and the whole of his own architectural designs, he arranged in his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, which he transformed into a museum, employing many ingenious devices for economising space. In 1827 John Britton [q. v.] published ‘The Union of Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting: a series of illustrations with descriptive account of the house and galleries of John Soane.’ In 1830 Soane himself printed a description of the museum of which a third edition (1835), with additional illustrations by Mrs. Hofland, contains a portrait of Soane, mezzotinted by C. Turner from a bust by Chantrey.

Soane was a munificent supporter of charitable institutions connected with art and literature. His house and its valuable contents in Lincoln's Inn Fields Soane in 1833 presented to the nation, obtaining an act of parliament by which it was vested in trustees, and endowing it with the funds necessary for its maintenance. He died at his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields on 20 Jan. 1837, leaving the bulk of his property to the children of his eldest son, and was buried in the mausoleum which he had erected for his wife in old St. Pancras churchyard.

The Soane Museum contains portraits of its founder at various ages by Hunneman, N. Dance, G. Dance, Sir T. Lawrence, J. Jackson, and W. Owen; and another by Jackson is in the National Portrait Gallery. The Lawrence portrait was engraved in mezzotint by C. Turner, and in stipple for Fisher's ‘National Portrait Gallery’ by J. Thomson; and a portrait by S. Drummond was engraved by T. Blood for the ‘European Magazine,’ 1813. In 1836 Daniel Maclise painted a portrait of Soane, and presented it to the Literary Fund, and its subsequent destruction by William Jerdan [q. v.], at Soane's instigation, caused some sensation at the time. In the same year an etching by Maclise appeared in ‘Fraser's Magazine.’

Despite his philanthropic instincts, Soane was a man of intractable temper, and not happy in his domestic relations. In 1784 he married Elizabeth Smith (d. 1815), niece of George Wyatt, a wealthy builder, to whose fortune he thereby succeeded. By her he had two sons, John and George (see below); the former died in 1823 at the age of thirty-six; with the latter he established a lifelong feud, and he is said to have declined a baronetcy in order that his son might not inherit anything from him.

The younger son, George Soane (1790–1860), miscellaneous writer, born in London in 1790, graduated B.A. from Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1811. He possessed a good knowledge of French, German, and Italian, and, besides many original works, chiefly novels and plays, was the author of many translations from these languages. He died on 12 July 1860. The following are his chief works: 1. ‘Knight Damon and a Robber Chief,’ London, 1812, 12mo. 2. ‘The Eve of St. Marco: a Novel,’ London, 1813, 12mo. 3. ‘The Peasant of Lucerne,’ London, 1815, 8vo. 4. ‘The Bohemian: a Tragedy,’ London, 1817, 8vo. 5. ‘The Falls of Clyde: a Melodrama,’ London, 1817, 8vo. 6. ‘Self-Sacrifice: a Melodrama,’ London, 1819, 8vo. 7. ‘The Dwarf of Naples: a Tragi-comedy,’ London, 1819, 8vo. 8. ‘The Hebrew: a Drama,’ London, 1820, 8vo. 9. ‘Pride shall have a Fall: a Comedy,’ London, 1824, 8vo. 10. ‘Specimens of German Romance,’ London, 1826, 16mo. 11. ‘Aladdin: a Fairy Opera,’ London, 1826, 8vo. 12. ‘The Frolics of Puck,’ London, 1834, 12mo. 13. ‘Life of the Duke of Wellington,’ London, 1839–40, 12mo. 14. ‘The Last Ball and other Tales,’ Woking, 1843, 8vo. 15. ‘The Night Dancers: an Opera,’ London, 1846, 8vo. 16. ‘January Eve: a Tale,’ London, 1847, 16mo. 17. ‘New Curiosities of Literature,’ London, 1847, 12mo. 18. ‘The Island of Calypso: an Operatic Masque,’ London, 1850, 12mo (Biogr. Dict. of Living Authors, 1816, p. 323; Pantheon of the Age, vol. iv.; Gent. Mag. 1860, ii. 218).

[Dict. of Architecture; Architectural Mag. 1837; Builder, 1862; Donaldson's Review of the Professional Life of Sir J. Soane, 1837; Knight's Cyclopædia of Biography, 1857; Gent. Mag. 1837, i. 321; Redgrave's Dict. of Artists; Bates's Maclise Gallery, 1883; O'Driscoll's Memoir of Maclise; Roberts's Memorials of Christie's, 1897.]

F. M. O'D.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.254
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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210 i 4 Soane, Sir John: after a mason insert (John Swan or Soane, who married Frances Hannington on 3 Feb. 1737-8)